Sunday 26 August 2012

Sexton Beetle

Image: Nigel Jones via Flickr
I don't like the look of this at all.
FREE UNDERTAKER SERVICES! All you have to do is be unconcerned with the fate of the interred body. It's that simple!

Sexton Beetles are about 70 species in the genus Nicrophorus and found across almost the entire world. They are a kind of Carrion Beetle, which is a hint, and they are also known as Burying Beetles, which is another hint. Also Nicrophorus means "bearer of death". And one of them is stuffing its head into the guts of a dead shrew. Grisly shenanigans are afoot!

So what's a sexton, then?

Image: Stanislav Krejčík
What's a sexton? Asks Nicrophorus vespilloides
A grave botherer, basically. He digs graves, tends graves, measures graves... lots of cemetery work. It's an important job on church grounds, cemeteries being one of those things people don't like to see get out of hand.

Image: gailhampshire via Flickr
Nicrophorus humator
Their Beetle counterparts are a little different though. More ghoulish. Maybe human sextons dress in black and are like "you do realise you're going to die, right?" every time they see someone smile, but they probably don't eat the contents of their graves. Not for the most part. One would raise an eyebrow at the very least, I think.

Image: Stanislav Krejčík
Nicrophorus investigator's clubbed and notched antennae are extremely sensitive.
Which is good, because a name like that calls for adventure.
Unfortunately, corpses don't come so easy for our fastidious Sexton Beetle. It's not like undertakers who have a whole queue of people literally giving them away. Instead, they must rely on a keen sense of smell supplied by their clubbed antennae. Each club has lots of notches to provide a large surface area for all the sensory organs required.

Image: Calle Eklund
A family that decays together, stays together.
Or is it the other way round?
They then make their way to the mortal coil of a recently departed animal of some kind, usually a small bird or rodent. This viewing may be done by a young couple seeking out a love nest, a single mother looking for a safe place to raise her children or a single male after some prime real estate with which to attract the love of his life.

Battle ensues if Sextons from all around fight over the cadaver. This is where pairs may well have the upper hand over the singles.

Image: Mejlgård Skov
Nicrophorus humator. Grass is nice.
Whoever wins begins to dig beneath the earthly remnants, and the corpse slowly disappears beneath the earth, safely hidden away from rival Sexton Beetles, flies and all manner of other scavengers.

But it's not enough. What about bacteria and fungus? All those tiny, omnipresent lifeforms, disgusting, attracted to disgusting things and determined to make them even more disgusting. Well, here's where things get disgusting.

As they dig, the Sexton Beetles secrete chemicals from their anus that kill off bacteria and fungus, staying the hand of decay and ensuring the body keeps reasonably fresh for as long as required. It's nasty, but it's their kind of nasty. It's also interesting because the anal secretions of most animals have quite the opposite effect.

Thus entombed, the beetles now sheer off any fur or feathers and use it to line the crypt. Then they shape the corpse into a ball and Mrs. Sexton Beetle lays her eggs.

They soon hatch and tiny larvae make their way to the carefully prepared abomination and eat it, like the tiny abominations they are. Sometimes they also beg, nuzzling one of their parents until they receive a regurgitated mouthful of partially digested corpse flesh into its sickening mouth.

Image: Craig Biegler
Larval Nicrophorus americanus
It's all SICK! You could almost say "won't somebody think of the chiidren?" except you can't because that's EXACTLY what these sickos are doing! This is an extremely rare example of parental care in the insect world. Mother and father tend to their offspring right until they take to the soil to pupate and emerge as adults.

Image: Aaron Goodwin
Apparently, that used to be a quail
Sometimes several families all share a single corpse if it's big enough, cooperating to hide it away, cover it in secretions and remove the fur. Then all the children tuck in as various parents look on in a grotesque mockery of humanity's humanity.

It's like The Monkey's Paw or that one episode of The X Files; someone wished for caring, insect parents... and they got it! I hope they're proud of themselves!


TexWisGirl said...

well, nice to see them using up the remnants. like their clubbed antennae.

Joseph JG said...

Waste not, want not! And I know I don't want it.

Bill said...

Like vultures, Sexton Beetles fill a unique niche in the natural world. Unlike vultures, this particular beetle is quite beautiful. Another amazing species!

FaustXIII said...

william bludworth beetle

Joseph JG said...

@Bill: They're remarkably attractive! Much nicer to look at than most things that come out of corpses.

@FaustXIII: I had to look than one up... you're definitely right! And William Bludworth is an excellent name than anything would be proud to have.